Feature Article - September 2002
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Get with the Programs

The latest trends shaping up in the fitness arena

By Mitch Martin

Yoga bared
Striking some yoga poses at WSU.

Yoga, in its purer form, was one of the major philosophic and spiritual doctrines of ancient India. It emerged as a spiritual force in the United States as far back as the 1920s.

In health clubs and other recreational facilities, yoga has developed largely into an exercise program, a point of some chagrin to yoga purists.

Paradoxically, it is the very fact that yoga offers both spiritual and mental benefits in addition to physical exercise that appears to be a source of its popularity.

Indeed, few fitness classes offer the combination of health benefits that yoga can offer, including cardiovascular training, body sculpting and flexibility. And yoga is a decidedly low-impact exercise. (However, injuries can occur with either over eager students or poor instruction.)

With this combination of benefits, it is perhaps not surprising that yoga is the trend leader in the 2002 IDEA survey. In the survey of about 300 fitness facilities, IDEA found a 54 percent increase in yoga classes over the last six years. In 1996, only 31 percent of survey respondents offered yoga, but the figure rose to 85 percent of fitness facilities in this year's survey.

At Washington State University, for example, yoga is one of the hottest fitness classes around. Bell says she has tried to remain sensitive to both the purists and those primarily interested in exercise.

"We are hoping to accommodate both sides," she says. "One thing we've worked on is being very careful about the class aims in the descriptors we put out in the class schedules."

Though it might make yoga purists fall right out of their dog poses, as an exercise class yoga is likely to move more and more away from its original form as practiced in health clubs and fitness centers. Power Yoga and Yoga-Pilates combinations are already proliferating.

Donna Cyrus, national group fitness director for Crunch Fitness, says the hybridization of yoga will continue to grow in order to accentuate sculpting and strength components.

"People have really embraced the changes in wellness they get from yoga, but I think they will want to see a little more dynamism," Cyrus says. "I think people are really ready to go to the next level with yoga."

Other nontraditional fitness programs

No matter how much yoga classes will change in the near future, they are unlikely to match the shock factor of some of Crunch gyms' fanciful creations. Known for edgy and creative programming, Crunch is showing exactly how diversified fitness programming can be.

Crunch's Cardio Striptease class

The gym received a lot of attention for its BOSU Balance Trainer. BOSU participants workout on a device similar to half an exercise ball that flips over during a workout to give participants differently shaped platforms on which to workout. The theory behind the exercise is that by making unique demands on balance, BOSU forces muscle groups to "fire" in new ways.

Much more outrageous is Crunch's Cardio Striptease class, which is an aerobic workout done complete with feather boa. The one-hour workout is lead by instructors with actual stripping experience. Crunch promotes the class as improving both fitness and sexuality.

Cyrus says a big key to Crunch's success is an overall nightclub atmosphere to the gyms, which helps attract and retain younger clientele.

"We're located in highly urban areas, usually close to colleges or college-aged people," Cyrus says. "We try to have a health club that looks like a night club."

Quality trainers and other challenges

Even a bold programmer like Cyrus says there are limits to non-fitness activities that can be transformed into a workout.

"There are some activities that require physical skills where the learning curve is too steep," she says. "You have to make sure it is adaptable to the masses and, basically, not too specific."

Bell says she adapts programs using the guidelines of several accreditation groups. The guidelines proscribe such exercise fundamentals as seven to 10 minutes of pre-aerobic warmup and 20 to 60 minutes of continuous activity for each class.

As programming diversifies, the quality of instructors becomes more important.

"It used to be that every instructor did one thing. Only yoga. Only step aerobics," Cyrus says. "It will be very difficult for an instructor to continue that way because the demand is for variety."

Cyrus says she places a premium on hiring and retaining quality, flexible trainers.

Cycling and yoga classes are big on campus at Washington State University.

"You really have to support the idea of continuous training for your people," she says.

Cyrus has the advantage of a densely populated location. Bell says finding qualified instructors in more rural locales like eastern Washington can be problematic.

"We've had students come in who think they can teach a class without any formal training," she says. "It can be difficult to find people with the right mix of experience and training for newer classes."

In Napa, Calif., Recreation Coordinator Samantha Holland says the instructors are particularly crucial. The parks and recreation department has sponsored one of the current rages in fitness, belly dancing, for more than 10 years. Devotees of belly dancing say the dance form increases flexibility, muscle tone and relaxation in an activity tailored for the female body. It also dovetails nicely with "core" exercise, concentrating on the abdomen, trunk and pelvis of the belly dancer.

Holland says the program is sustained and grows based on the student's appreciation of instructor Sharyn Fuller.

"Really I think the popularity of our program is based fully on her work," Holland says.